Bea has the Psych degree - I have no formal education in the field, but I grew up in the household of a man who went from being a steelworker going to night school, at my birth, to a PhD in Psychology when I was about 12. I think it's a little bit more than just staying at a Holiday Inn Express, in terms of what you pick up, both in terminology and concept, as well as exposure to illustrative circumstances.
Which in plain English means as the kids of a shrink-in-training we were exposed to an underbelly of life other kids never saw, much less even thought of. My dad would take us with him on weekends, to Dorothea Dix Hospital while he saw patients. We didn't actually go inside the hospital, and frankly, I'm grateful - hospitals of all kinds are bad mojo, in my opinion - but we hung out on the grounds with the less dangerous patients. Comforting thought indeed, to a 9 or 10 year old, that these people, often aimlessly milling about, sometimes talking to themselves, were the less dangerous ones.
Once, my younger brother brought a Hot Wheels with him and was running it up and down one of those large, sort of pagoda-roofed trash cans. My older brother and I watched him idly, bored, killing time. An ancient looking old man kind of tottered over to us, stood near us, fascinated with the movement of the little red car. Up and down, up and down the trashcan my brother ran it, somewhat nervously looking at the rapt old man watching his every move. Abruptly, the old man reached out and took the car from my brother. We all stood slightly back, and a little closer together, as we watched him run the little Hot Wheels up and down. Up and down, up and down. My dad called to us just then, from the top of the steps, up at the front of the hospital, and we went to him. We left the car behind with the old man, figuring, as my younger brother said later, "He needed it more than we did."
As benign as that encounter was, it was disturbing to us. We knew something wasn't right, but we were clueless as to what that was. And for every benign, albeit strange encounter, there were others with darker undercurrents. I remember a woman stopping our car as we drove through the hospital grounds one summer evening. She leaned on the side of the car to talk to my dad, her arms prominent in my view from the backseat. They were covered with freshly healing wounds; slashes, gashes and holes crowded her arms from wrist to elbow, and I stared at them in horrified fascination. When I asked later about the scars and wounds my father's answer wasn't explicit, which is probably as it should be, but I still wondered about that woman and what had happened to her.
It made me look at the people on the street differently, wondering how many of these seemingly normal, well adjusted people who smiled as they passed were in actuality fragile and hanging by tenuous, invisible threads. It made me aware that the creepy man in the trenchcoat at the park wasn't there for the ballgame, and that every bum passed out in the bushes by the capital building, reeking of cheap wine and urine, had been someone's child once.
Perhaps that's where empathy is born - in that startling flash of clarity when you see someone who is ill, or hurting, or subversive - and you realize that you could just as easily be that person, as they could be you, given a different set of circumstances.
"Life on the streets, it isn't that bad
or all that it's cracked up to be.
Some are half crazy, others plain stupid,
some they just want to be free..."
It's been a rough couple of weeks. The trip to New York was - difficult - I'm still processing it. I've been sick as a dog twice in that time as well, went to an epic birthday party at Cleo's where the Captain did me in, and life goes on, regardless of whether you're strapped in and ready for the roller coaster ride.